What is Human Nature?

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Every animal has its own animal nature. Imagine a mother cat which gives birth to two baby kittens. You then decide to keep one kitten in your apartment to take care of it, and leave the other one in the wilderness, let’ say along with her mother. And five years later, you wish to compare the two cats.

kittens

I know.

Well, the two cats will still be essentially the same. Even though the two kitties were isolated since their birth, and moreover even though one of them has lived until now only with human contact in your apartment without setting foot outside once, both of them will still develop physical and psychological traits proper to a cat:

  • their ability to see in the dark
  • the fact that they wash themselves
  • their unreal talent to land on their feet no matter how we throw them (right?!)
  • etc.

They possess a certain intelligence, instincts, and behaviors that are proper to cats. We call this the cat nature 1. The same goes for every other animal. Try to keep a bear at home as your lovely pet, and it will end up killing you, because it’s in its nature.

We, as humans, certainly do have a human nature. So tell me, what are the traits of it? Which parts of ourselves are determined by biology and which by society?

The first way to find the human nature that comes to mind is to say that there are seven billion people on Earth, therefore qualities that belong to all of them are human qualities.

Nowadays, we are aware of the incredible diversity of customs, traditions, behaviors, thoughts and values people can have. But despite their importance to every each of us, we do agree that these traits do not belong to the biological human nature, for the simple reason that they differ from one culture to another, from one individual to another.

What we are looking for is something more in the core of the human nature, something not related to society nor education, something that is observed in every human being without exception. I can think of the following distinguishing characteristics:

  • We stand up and walk.
  • We communicate using an articulated language.
  • We cook our food.
  • We make a ritual for the dead (may it be a burial, cremation or any other ritual. We just don’t leave the dead body lying there, like animals do).
  • We consider incest as a taboo.
  • Etc.

You may, of course, disagree with some of these traits, or add some others to the list. But most of the people will think that yes, these characteristics, which are fundamental and don’t vary from culture to culture, are innate to humans and form the human nature.

And I’m here to tell you No, that’s not the case. These characteristics are not part of the human nature. We learn them, they are a product of society.

That’s because there’s a flaw with our method of finding common qualities present in every human being of every culture. The flaw is that all of the human beings we are considering were actually brought up by people and educated by society, no matter how primitive the society is.

To get a grasp of the real human nature, we need to observe the qualities of humans who grew up far away from any human contact. Basically, we need to reiterate our kitty experience, the one with one of the kitties who lived far away from any other cat contact in her life.

Montesquieu had this idea before me. “A prince could do a beautiful experiment,” he wrote. “Raise three or four children like animals, with goats or with deaf-mute nurses. They would make a language for themselves. Examine this language. See nature in itself, and freed from the prejudices of education; learn from them, after they are instructed, what they had thought; exercise their mind by giving them all the things necessary to invent; finally, write the history of the experiment.”

Of course, this experience is forbidden. Fortunately, there have been in the past several cases of children who grew up in extreme isolation from society for other reasons, and anthropologists made detailed studies on them. They have a name: “feral children”.

Let’s have a look.

Kamala and Amala, the Wolf Girls from Bengal

  • Date found: 1920
  • Age when found: 8 (Kamala) and 1.5 (Amala)
  • Location: Midnapore, India
  • Years in the wild: 8 and 1
  • Animals: wolves

This is perhaps one of the most famous cases of feral children, two little girls raised by wolves since their earliest childhood. I will quote a passage from the American Anthologist about their behavior:

“When rescued, Kamala and Amala were unable to stand in the erect position, but habitually progressed on all fours. They ate raw meat and entrails in what is alleged to have been wolf fashion, were without sphincter control, howled like wolves, preferred the society of dogs to that of human beings, and so on. They were entirely without speech and all those other attributes which we have come to regard as specifically human.”

Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron

  • Date found: 1797
  • Age when found: around 12
  • Location: Aveyron, France
  • Years in the wild: 12 (?)
  • Animals: None

Victor was a boy who apparently lived his entire childhood alone in the woods before being found wandering the woods near Aveyron in 1797. He was captured, then escaped twice, but eventually emerged from the forests on his own in 1800.

According to the book Education of the Exceptional Child, Victor “had very few human characteristics and resembled a wild animal much more than a human being. He was unable to speak, based food preferences on smell (such as a wild animal), and walked on all four limbs.”

feral-children-human-nature

Another example: a monkey girl.


There are numerous other cases, such as the Syrian gazelle boy, Kaspar Hauser the German boy, or Rochom P’ngieng the Cambodian jungle girl, and my goal here is not to list them. My goal is to notice that despite the differences between the individual cases, we do find patterns, such as:

  • Feral children have difficulties to speak a language.
  • They find it hard to eat normal food, for instance, they often prefer uncooked meat.
  • They may not walk upright, preferring to move on all fours.
  • They seem uninterested in other people and do not know how other people see them.

If walking upright/cooking food/speaking were really part of the human nature, then, like an isolated cat, the isolated child would also possess them all. Facts show that they do not.

So I’m asking you again, what is the human nature?

I do not have the answer, nobody does, and the nature vs. nurture debate goes on. All I can say is that the human nature is less than what you think, and the only thing we are sure about is that we need other humans to teach us how to become a human. Because in a sense, these feral children were not completely human. They were biologically human but they were unable to be part of the essential human experience. To be fully human, we need an upbringing, which means communication with other humans. Humans are naturally social, and that’s the first step towards the human nature.

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Footnotes

  1. Or “catness” as Aristotle would put it.